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Drug interactions overview
Whenever two or more drugs are being taken, there is a chance that there will be an interaction among the drugs. The interaction may increase or decrease the effectiveness of the drugs or their side effects. The likelihood of drug interactions increases as the number of drugs being taken increases. Therefore, people who take many drugs are at the greatest risk for interactions. Drug interactions contribute to the cost of healthcare because of the costs of medical care that are required to treat problems caused by changes in effectiveness or side effects. Interactions also can lead to psychological suffering. This review discusses the issue of drug interactions and several ways to avoid them.
What are drug interactions?
A drug interaction can be defined as an interaction between a drug and another substance that prevents the drug from performing as expected. This definition applies to interactions of drugs with other drugs (drug-drug interactions), as well as drugs with food (drug-food interactions) and other substances, such as supplements. Drugs also may interact with laboratory tests, changing the proper results of the laboratory test.
Quick GuidePrescription Drug Abuse: Know The Warning Signs
How do drug interactions occur?
There are several mechanisms by which drugs interact with other drugs, food, and other substances. An interaction can result when there is an increase or decrease in:
- the absorption of a drug into the body;
- distribution of the drug within the body;
- alterations made to the drug by the body (metabolism); and
- elimination of the drug from the body.
Most of the important drug interactions result from a change in the absorption, metabolism, or elimination of a drug. Drug interactions also may occur when two drugs that have similar (additive) effects or opposite (canceling) effects on the body are administered together. For example, there may be major sedation when two drugs that can cause sedation are taken simultaneously, such as narcotics with antihistamines.
Another source of drug interactions occurs when one drug alters the concentration of a substance that is normally present in the body. The alteration of this substance reduces or enhances the effect of another drug that is being taken. The drug interaction between warfarin (Coumadin) and vitamin K-containing products is a good example of this type of interaction. Warfarin acts by reducing the concentration of the active form of vitamin K in the body. Therefore, when vitamin K is taken, it reduces the effectiveness of warfarin.
Change in absorption
Most drugs are absorbed into the blood and then travel to their site of action. Most drug interactions that are due to altered absorption occur in the intestine. There are various ways that the absorption of drugs can be reduced. These mechanisms include:
- an alteration in blood flow to the intestine;
- change in drug metabolism (breakdown) by the intestine;
- increased or decreased intestinal motility (movement);
- alterations in stomach acidity, and
- a change in the bacteria that normally reside in the intestine.
Drug absorption also can be affected if the drug's ability to dissolve (solubility) is changed by another drug or if a substance (for example, food) binds to the drug and prevents its absorption.
Change in drug metabolism and elimination
Most drugs are eliminated through the kidney in either an unchanged form or metabolized by the liver. Therefore, the kidney and the liver are very important sites of potential drug interactions. Some drugs are able to reduce or increase the metabolism of other drugs by the liver or their elimination by the kidney.
Metabolism of drugs is the process through which the body converts (alters or modifies) drugs into forms that are more or less active (for example, by converting drugs that are given in inactive forms into their active forms that actually produce the desired effect) or that are easier for the body to eliminate through the kidneys. Most drug metabolism takes place in the liver, but other organs also may play a role (for example, the kidneys, intestine, etc.). The cytochrome P450 enzymes are a group of enzymes in the liver that are responsible for the metabolism of most drugs. They are, therefore, often involved in drug interactions. Drugs and certain types of food may increase or decrease the activity of these enzymes and therefore affect the concentration of drugs that are metabolized by these enzymes. An increase in the activity of these enzymes leads to a decrease in the concentration and effect of an administered drug. Conversely, a decrease in enzyme activity leads to an increase in drug concentration and effect.
What are the consequences of drug interactions?
Drug interactions may lead to an increase or decrease in the beneficial or the adverse effects of the given drugs. When a drug interaction increases the benefit of the administered drugs without increasing side effects, both drugs may be combined to increase the control of the condition that is being treated. For example, drugs that reduce blood pressure by different mechanisms may be combined because the blood pressure lowering effect achieved by both drugs may be better than with either drug alone.
The absorption of some drugs is increased by food. Therefore, these drugs are taken with food in order to increase their concentration in the body and, ultimately, their effect. Conversely, when a drug's absorption is reduced by food, the drug is taken on an empty stomach.
Drug interactions that are of greatest concern are those that reduce the desired effects or increase the adverse effects of the drugs. Drugs that reduce the absorption or increase the metabolism or elimination of other drugs tend to reduce the effects of the other drugs. This may lead to failure of therapy or warrant an increase in the dose of the affected drug. Conversely, drugs that increase absorption or reduce the elimination or metabolism of other drugs - increase the concentration of the other drugs in the body - and lead to increased amounts of drug in the body and more side effects. Sometimes, drugs interact because they produce similar side effects. Thus, when two drugs that produce similar side effects are combined, the frequency and severity of the side effect are increased.
How often do drug interactions occur?
The prescribing information for most drugs contains a list of potential drug interactions. Many of the listed interactions may be rare, minor, or only occur under specific conditions and may not be important. Drug interactions that cause important changes in the action of a drug are of greatest concern.
Drug interactions are complex and often unpredictable. A known interaction may not occur in every individual. This can be explained because there are several factors that affect the likelihood that a known interaction will occur. These factors include differences among individuals in their:
- lifestyle (diet, exercise),
- underlying diseases,
- drug doses,
- the duration of combined therapy, and
- the relative time of administration of the two substances. (Sometimes, interactions can be avoided if two drugs are taken at different times.)
Nevertheless, important drug interactions occur frequently and they add millions of dollars to the cost of health care. Moreover, many drugs have been withdrawn from the market because of their potential to interact with other drugs and cause serious health care problems.
How can drug interactions be avoided?
- Give healthcare professionals a complete list of all of the drugs that you are using or have used within the last few weeks. This should include over-the-counter medications, vitamins, food supplements, and herbal remedies.
- Inform healthcare professionals when medications are added or discontinued.
- Inform healthcare professionals about changes in lifestyle (for example, exercise, diet, alcohol intake.
- Ask your healthcare professionals about the most serious or frequent drug interactions with the medications that you are taking.
- Since the frequency of drug interactions increases with the number of medications, work with your healthcare professionals to eliminate unnecessary medications. Always discuss potential drug interactions with our pharmacist.
This brief overview of drug interactions does not cover every possible scenario. Individuals should not be afraid to use their drugs because of the potential for drug interactions. Rather, they should use the information that is available to them to minimize the risk of such interactions and to improve the success of their therapy.
Drug interactions occur frequently. Get facts about the types of drug interactions, what substances or other things that may interact with drugs such as OTC drug and prescription drugs, vitamins, food(s) (grapefruit), and laboratory tests. Find out how to protect yourself from potential drug interactions.
Multimedia: Slideshows, Images & Quizzes
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Treatment & Diagnosis
Medications & Supplements
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- Strattera (atomoxetine)
- Tramadol (Ultram) Side Effects
- Anxiolytics (for Anxiety) Drug Class Side Effects
- Aspirin vs. Plavix (clopidogrel)
Prevention & Wellness
- Dilemma for Cancer Patients as Life-Saving Meds Are Tied to Vision Loss
- Could Nonprofit Drug Companies Cut Sky-High Prices?
- Antibiotics Tied to Higher Kidney Stone Risk
- Generic Drugs Don't Always Push Prices Down
- Health Tip: Prevent an Accidental Drug Overdose
- Daily Aspirin Can Bring Heart Benefits, But Risks Too
- What You Don't Know About Drug Interactions Could Hurt You
- Opioid Abuse Down in Younger Americans, But Up Among Older Adults
- Preparing for Anesthesia: 5 Tips You Should Know
- Marijuana Derivative May Curb Tough-to-Treat Epilepsy
- These Medicines Often Send Americans to ERs
- Health Tip: Be Aware of Drug and Food Interactions
- Statins Often Interact With Other Heart Drugs
- How Older People Can Head Off Dangerous Drug Interactions
- Falls a Growing and Deadly Threat for Older Americans
- Over 100 Drugs Pose Risk to Heart Failure Patients
- Health Tip: Lower Your Risk of Drug Interactions
- 1 in 6 Seniors Takes Dangerous Combos of Meds, Supplements: Study
- Can You Trust Your Dietary Supplement?
- Too Many Seniors With Diabetes Are Overtreated, Study Suggests
- Doctors' Prescribing Practices Key to Curbing Painkiller Abuse: CDC
- Taking St. John's Wort for Depression Carries Risks: Study
- Antibiotic May Lower Effect of Some Blood Thinners
- FDA Warns of Cardiac Effect When Heart Drug Mixed With Hepatitis C Meds
- Certain Heart Drug, Antibiotic Combo Might Be Fatal for Seniors
- Many Consumers Misled About Bogus Weight-Loss Supplements, Survey Says
- Drug Interactions Common Among Hospitalized Kids, Study Says
- U.S. Prices Soaring for Some Generic Drugs, Experts Say
- Why Aren't There Sex Drugs for Women?
- Hepatitis C Combo Pill May Cure Those Who Can Afford It
- HIV Patients Less Likely to Get Cancer Treatment: Study
- Medication Safety Essential For Seniors
- New Drug May Help Lower 'Bad' Cholesterol Beyond Statins
- Prescription Drug Use Continues to Climb in U.S.
- Health Tip: When Food and Drugs Interact
- New Blood Pressure Guidelines Raise the Bar for Taking Medications
- Smartphones May Help Nursing Home Docs Spot Drug Mishaps
- Ice Pops Interfered With Hospital Patient's Lab Tests: Report
- Statins Plus Certain Antibiotics May Set Off Toxic Reaction: Study
- Report Details Steps to Boost Patient Safety
- Inconsistency Seen in Safety Labeling for Generic Drugs
- Heart Drug Digoxin Tied to Higher Death Risk for Some Patients
- More New Drugs a Bad Fit With Grapefruit, Study Finds
- FDA Mulls Expanding Patients' Access to Certain Drugs
- Herbal Medicines for Arthritis Not Backed by Evidence
- New Guidelines Issued for Combining HIV, Seizure Meds
- New Drug Helps Patients With Atrial Fibrillation
Daily Health News
Drugs and Treatment Resources
Report Problems to the Food and Drug Administration
You are encouraged to report negative side effects of prescription drugs to the FDA. Visit the FDA MedWatch website or call 1-800-FDA-1088.
Top Drug Interactions Related Articles
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Asthma SlideshowWhat is asthma? Learn about asthma, a chronic inflammation disorder of the bronchiole tubes (airways). Discover information about an asthma attack, asthma symptoms, prevention and treatments such as asthma medications and inhalers.
Asthma: Over The Counter TreatmentPatients who have infrequent, mild bouts of asthma attacks may use over-the-counter (OTC) medications to treat their asthma symptoms. OTC asthma medicines are limited to epinephrine and ephedrine. These OTC drugs are best used with the guidance of a physician, as there may be side effects and the drugs may not be very effective.
Atrial fibrillation (AF or AFib) is an abnormality in the heart rhythm which involves irregular and often rapid beating of the heart. Symptoms may include heart palpitations, dizziness, fainting, fatigue, shortness of breath, and chest pain.
Atrial fibrillation treatment may include medication or procedures like cardioversion or ablation to normalize the heart rate.
ChemotherapyChemotherapy is the treatment of cancer with drugs that can destroy cancer cells. These drugs often are called "anticancer" drugs. Chemotherapy is often used with other treatments. Coping with side effects (fatigue, nausea, vomiting, pain, hair loss, infection, diarrhea, constipation, fluid retention, mouth and throat problems) are important to understand when undergoing chemotherapy treatment. It is important to eat well during chemotherapy, and get the support you need both during and after treatment.
Cholesterol Drugs SlidesWhen diet and exercise aren't enough, should you turn to drugs? Learn cholesterol basics, drug classes, and available drugs along with their benefits and side effects.
DementiaDementia is defined as a significant loss of intellectual abilities such as memory capacity, severe enough to interfere with social or occupational functioning. There are several different types of dementia, including cortical, subcortical, progressive, primary, and secondary dementias. Other conditions and medication reactions can also cause dementia. Dementia is diagnosed based on a certain set of criteria. Treatment for dementia is generally focused on the symptoms of the disease.
Dementia SlideshowWhat is dementia? Learn about dementia disorders such as Lewy Body Dementia, Alzheimer's disease (AD), Vascular (multi-infarct) dementia (MID), and more. Discover dementia stages, signs of dementia, causes, diagnosis, treatments, and medications.
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Fibromyalgia FactsFibromyalgia is a chronic pain condition characterized by symptoms such as fatigue, sleep disturbances, and tender points. Stress reduction, exercise, and medication are the standard treatments for fibromyalgia.
Malaria FactsMalaria is a disease that is spread by the bite of an infected Anopheles mosquito. Malaria symptoms include fever, chills, nausea, vomiting, and body aches. Treatment involves supportive care and antibiotics.
MigraineMigraine headache is a type of headache associated with a sensitivity to light, smells, or sounds, eye pain, severe pounding on one side of the head, and sometimes nausea and vomiting. The exact cause of migraine headaches is not known.
Triggers for migraine headaches include certain foods, stress, hormonal changes, strong stimuli (loud noises), and oversleeping.
Treatment guidelines for migraines include medicine, pain management, diet changes, avoiding foods that trigger migraines, staying hydrated, getting adequate sleep, and exercising regularly. Prevention of migraine triggers include getting regular exercise, drinking water daily, reducing stress, and avoiding trigger foods.
Phototoxic Drug Reaction PictureIn phototoxic reactions, the drug may become activated by exposure to sunlight and cause damage to the skin. See a picture of Phototoxic Drug Reaction and learn more about the health topic.
Pregnancy Drug DangersTaking prescription medications or over-the-counter drugs or supplements should be discussed with your doctor. There are some medications that have been found to cause no problems in pregnancy, however, medications such as Accutane for acne, should never be taken during pregnancy.
Sun-Sensitive Drugs (Photosensitivity to Drugs)Sun sensitivity (photosensitivity) is an inflammation of the skin induced by the combination of medications or substances and sunlight. The effect on the skin is redness, which looks similar to a sunburn. Generally, these reactions are either phototoxic or photoallergic. Phototoxic drugs are more common than photoallergic drugs.
Symptoms of phototoxic reactions are a burning and stinging sensation and then redness. Symptoms of photoallergic reactions are itching, redness, swelling, and blisters of the affected area.
Treatment generally is discontinuation of the medication and topical application of creams.